Are we winning? After returning from a 15- month stint in Afghanistan, I find this is the single most-often-asked ques -tion as I make the rounds to re-establish old acquaintances and friendships. Strategically, our focus seems to have sharpened in the past 10 months. We’ve finally agreed to fight a counterinsurgency, and that will focus efforts at every level. But I know least about that.
At the operational level, where I worked with the Afghan National Police (ANP) for 15 months, things look a lot worse.
Operationally, the effort is broken. Assets are misdirected, poorly managed and misused. Graft and corruption in the Afghan forces are endemic, and coalition forces unwittingly enable that corruption. Let’s break that into two parts:
Misdirected, mismanaged and misused:
There are several related facets to this issue. Aid agencies, nongovernmental agencies and coalition state and defense departments have all poured money and materiel into the country in poorly coordinated efforts. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has received orders of magnitude more money than the ANP. In any counterinsurgency effort, the police play a vital role in maintaining the rule of law at the local level, but the Afghan police force is pathetically underresourced and undermanned.
It is misemployed. At a meeting of regional police commanders, one commander complained about the use of his police to fight the Taliban. The police are neither trained nor armed adequately to fight the Taliban. He complained about orders to accomplish an army mission.
Assets are mismanaged at every level. U.S. Department of Defense inspector general reports for several years have focused on this issue. In both the ANA and ANP, accountability for weapons, trucks and fuel lacks consistency and accuracy. The ANA is light-years ahead of the ANP in the building of support infrastructure.
In the ANP, I witnessed the struggle to get the Afghan police to implement a modernized support structure. The effort repeatedly ran into ANP resistance.
The Afghans are used to a manual, command-oriented, push system.
You get only what’s authorized. The recommended system is a fully automated pull system. You get what you need when you ask for it.
But the Afghans are totally unprepared to operate, let alone manage and maintain, an automated system. This is not incompetence. A devastated education infrastructure creates significant barriers.
Corruption endemic in the Afghan forces:
Endemic graft and corruption are not the big problem. The corruption is there, but expecting the Afghans to live up to our standards is naive. Their reality is much harsher than we will ever experience.
That coalition forces unwittingly enable graft and corruption is the big problem. This observation is not an indictment of any single individual but of systemic problems that constrain and channel individual behavior. Several examples follow:
First, length of tour for those mentoring ministry-level efforts is simply too short. Six to eight months is barely enough time to gain an understanding of system dynamics, let alone effect meaningful change. The attitude this engenders in the Afghans is “wait and see.” They are reluctant to embrace recommendations from the current mentor because he will change in six months - so they push back out of wariness and fatigue.
A closely related dynamic is related to end-of-tour performance reporting. A combat-zone performance report carries significant weight at the next promotion board. Not surprisingly, the focus on doing “something meaningful” creates turmoil as people rotate in and out, declare the previous efforts ineffective, and start their own programs. This unsatisfactory situation creates its own perpetual dust storm of short-term-focused efforts to achieve immediate goals.
Our fear of being associated with an Afghan failure makes us classic enablers. We reward poor performance by throwing more money or stepping in and doing the job for the Afghans so we don’t get blamed for their failures. This behavior prolongs problems and entrenches poor performers. Somehow, some way, we have to figure out how to let the Afghans fail while protecting them from catastrophic consequences and protecting our own people in the end-of-tour evaluation process.
This complex constellation of issues dramatically affects our efforts. It doesn’t appear there is any command recognition of these factors. New commanders only stir the pot. Our nation-building efforts cannot succeed because we are not committed to the generational time frame necessary to implement meaningful change. When we depart, the short-term operational goals that only marginally support our strategic efforts will collapse because there is no effort to build self-sustaining Afghan government agencies that fit the culture.
Robert A. Wehrle recently returned from a tour supporting the Afghan Ministry of Interior. He is a member of the board of directors of the Alexandrian Defense Group, a small international think tank specializing in counterinsurgency issues.